by Kim Moody
It's easy to look at the situation in the Teamsters and write it all off to the usual suspects: Carey became a threat to big business. He not only presided over a profound transformation of a major union situated at the heart of the economy, he took on UPS, won, and set an aggressive new pattern for labor as a whole.
So, corporate America, their Republican buddies, and the courts (under pressure or by preference) did him in.
No doubt about it, this cast of characters went after Ron Carey like hound dogs after a bleeding fox. Rest assured they're not done yet. They, in one of their many forms, will probably get their teeth into Rich Trumka and maybe others.
Some of labor's best will go down, while many of the worst will walk away unscathed and grinning. Corporate America won this one.
There's another culprit here, however. The tragedy at the Teamsters was, at least in part, an inside job.
The problems now faced by Ron Carey and the Teamster reform movement were born in the actions and political culture of top-level labor and their Democratic Party "friends." This culprit's name is business unionism.
It comes clean or dirty, and in many political shades. Call it what you like, its basic characteristics are: top-down organization, closed-door negotiations, dependence on the Democratic Party, a fetish about the union's material property and accumulated wealth, a softness on employer "competitiveness," and a general distrust of the rank and file.
Everything in the top-down world of business unionism is "let's make a deal."
Shuffling money around to win elections, legally or not, in the unions or the nation, is second nature.
Junior Hoffa offered a particularly crude version of it when he said during the 1996 Teamster election campaign, "What you want is a union with a big bank account and a strong leader."
Today's AFL-CIO leaders certainly aren't a bunch of Hoffas. But they are still basically business unionists. They promise change and bring new energy to organizing and speaking out on issues. But they have taken on more high-priced consultants, more multi-million dollar media campaigns, more bureaucratic institutes, more talk of "partnerships" with business.
They have spent millions on the federation's headquarters, and despite talk of a new way of doing politics, forked over more money to don't-deliver Democrats than ever. Union democracy is not on their agenda.
They have not transcended business unionism so much as given it an information-age makeover.
Carey, too, must share some of the responsibility. All that happened did so under his presidency. He hired the consultants. In choosing old style money-driven electioneering in 1996, he, in effect, chose business union methods over the rank and file campaign advocated and conducted by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
The consultants hired by Carey were the conduit to labor's old ways of doing things. What the whole bunch did was introduce the old back-room political culture into a Teamsters' union that was fighting to get past all that.
Carey was, in turn, drawn further into this swamp. The federation officers, consultants, and politicians are so rooted in that old culture, they probably didn't even know they were corrupting something. And that points to the problem.
Business unionism and its culture of bureaucratic functioning and top-down dealing is so familiar and so ingrained that both its high-placed practitioners and rank and file victims often don't even notice it at work.
That's just the way the world is and always has been. Right?
Wrong! It wasn't always like that and nothing was proving the old business unionism wrong more than the reforming, fighting rank and file Teamsters, above all the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and the leader of the reform coalition Ron Carey.
They had won the direct vote on top leaders, wiped out layers of'time-serving bureaucrats, lowered staff and officer salaries, trusteed dozens of mob-run locals and trained members to run them, launched new forums of accountability, and, yes, taken on corporate America like no business union has or could in decades.
But Carey made a mistake. It's not just that he hired some self-serving consultants. When he let in these impeccably "pro-labor" fundraising and marketing professionals he took a step away from the rank and file approach that won the election in 1991 and made the reform movement one of the most powerful and thorough ever.
In a speech at the Teamsters for a Democratic Union convention in November, Ken Paff said, "if you're going to take on corporate America, you better make sure you're not vulnerable.' Carey is basically a straight arrow and his accomplishments in the last six years are enormous, but he made himself and the reform movement vulnerable when he sought the media-blitz shortcut and took on the political pimps and methods of business unionism.
The lesson here is too easily lost in the details of guilt or innocence. Revitalizing the labor movement isn't just about cleaning up a few worse-than-average unions, much less hiring a bigger horde of money-guzzling media and PR experts. Hoffa is wrong, it's not about big bank accounts. It's about rank and file power and accountable leadership.
That's the prize. That's where to keep your eyes.